NAACP 102

NAACP Convention Roy Wilkins Youth Leadership Luncheon

Outside a luncheon for young members at the NAACP’s annual convention, Ivan Gomez Wei stood, frustrated with the organization he had joined to make a difference.

The 24-year-old president of the civil rights organization’s youth and college division in New Jersey came looking for inspiration, to continue what he described as a battle to have the NAACP take his ideas about activism more seriously.

Inside, a former undocumented immigrant who went on to graduate from Stanford University, approached the lectern to tell Wei – and others – why they should let nothing stop them. Because of repeated injustices, she said, they should be passionate activists with vision.

“Whether or not the NAACP sends us an e-mail . . . you should be angry – and sick and tired enough to walk out of here with a sense of purpose,” said Rahiel Tesfamariam of New York, publisher of Urban Cusp online magazine, urbancusp.com, and a former columnist for the Washington Post.

Tesfamariam, who is from Eritrea, delivered the message to a gathering of 400 at the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown Hotel, an outpost of the gathering’s headquarters at the Convention Center. She aimed to stir young people into action, whether they felt frustrated or emboldened. The deaths of black men while in police custody and other social justice issues demand immediate action, she said.

The involvement of young people in civil rights is a major focus of the NAACP’s 106th annual convention, which will end Wednesday. Youth seminars, receptions, luncheons, regional meetings, and a two-day skills competition for scholarship awards are all held during the seven-day convention.

More than 11,000 high school-age students participate in the annual program, which helps youngsters hone skills in 29 disciplines, said Larry Brown, the program’s director. About 25,000 people 25 and under are involved in the organization’s youth and college division, which focuses on educating young people about economic, social, and political issues, advancing the cause of minorities, and developing youth leaders.

Wei, of Fair Lawn, N.J., restarted the decades-dormant NAACP chapter at Ramapo College in Mahwah.

Louyankkah Justilien, 18, of Miami, said the organization had helped her find her voice.

“I was a quiet person, but I had a lot to say,” Justilien said. She is now vice president of the NAACP’s Miami-Dade Youth Council. She traveled to the convention – her fourth – with two chaperones and seven other young people, including her brother Jessen, 13.

Jessen Justilien, who is in the eighth grade, said he is worried about police brutality, referring to the deaths of men including Freddie Gray and Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

“It’s not fair. Police are abusing their power,” Jessen Justilien said, “but that doesn’t mean that every police officer is going to shoot someone.”

Youth members such as Ekow Nana-Kweson of the Hofstra University chapter in New York and Jordan Harris, 24, a senior at Oakwood College in Alabama, say the deaths of young men at the hands of police – the motivation behind the Black Lives Matter movement – propelled their local chapters into action.

Hofstra’s chapter has hosted social media campaigns, including “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” online discussions. At Oakwood, the college chapter presented a seminar, “the 4-1-1 on the 5-0.”

“That issue shook the nation and our campus, because we have a lot of black boys,” said Harris, who moved up from president of the Oakwood chapter to a statewide office with the Alabama youth and college division.

The NAACP has been accused of being out of step with youth and slow to cultivate leaders among the young. Brown said a glance at the organization’s extensive program would dispel what he views as a myth.

But Kennedi Searl, 13, of Fort Worth, Texas, said there was a gulf between the NAACP and its youngest members. Searl, who has been a member for four years and wants to be a lawyer, described the NAACP as important to her because of her interest in criminal justice, but other youths – high school age and younger – don’t feel as close to the organization.

“There’s a lack of youth groups. They don’t interact with us as much as they should,” Searl said.

At the college level, support and guidance is robust, Nana-Kweson said. The time for young people to lead will come – eventually.

“The people at the higher levels are elderly, and that’s because they have the experience,” Nana-Kweson said. “The transition will come naturally, kind of like a circle of life.”

NAACP 115